Writing in the NY Times Magazine, Zev Chafets has the best article I've yet seen on Brooklyn's Syrian Jewish community and its edict against marrying converts (or converting anyone, for that matter). Here's a choice quote:
Never accept a convert or a child born of a convert,” [Jakie] Kassin told me by phone, summarizing the message. “Push them away with strong hands from our community. Why? Because we don’t want gentile characteristics.”
How strong is the edict? Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, while he was still Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, traveled to Brooklyn to personally vouch for a convert. She is as Jewish as I am, Rav Ovadia allegedly said to Rabbi Jacob Kassin, the head of the Syrian community. Rabbi Kassin refused to let her marry into the community anyway.
Community members who violate the edict are shunned – some, like Rabbi Kassin's own daughter – have had no contact with the community or even with their own families, in some cases for decades.
But there is much good on Ocean Parkway:
But the solidarity of the SY [i.e., Syrian] community is based on more than fear of excommunication and the evil eye. There are positive inducements as well. Chief among these are the support and charity that the community shows to its members. It is an intensely social place; weddings of 1,000 guests or more are common (there are volunteer societies that loan out dishes, silverware and even tables and chairs to enable everyone to entertain in a respectable fashion). Grown children often live within walking distance of the parents, and family Sabbath dinners of 30 or 40 are the norm. Being an SY means never having to say you are hungry. The community is charitable to a fault: at Sunday-morning house parties and festive holiday cruises, grandees compete by making donations to one another’s pet charities.
The result is the most generous cradle-to-grave mutual-welfare society this side of the Saudi royal family. The community’s annual spending on charity and other civic services, including education, is around $100 million. “The services here are preconception to postmortem,” David Greenfield, executive director of the recently formed Sephardic Community Federation, told me.
An SY in good standing can expect free K-12 parochial education and summer camps for the kids, access to a palatial communal ritual bath, use of grand recreational facilities in a community center now being doubled in size, high-level care for the aged and attention to whatever material problems life may present. “If there are poor people among us, we try to help,” Jakie Kassin told me. “If a person falters in business, other men step in. I’ve even seen people in the same business, direct competitors, raise money to put the man back on his feet.”
Still, the article notes that Syrian Jews rarely get a higher education and even their Jewish educations take a back seat to making money. The community needs to import its professionals, which means Ashkenazim run some of the community's institutions.
Other Sefardim live and work in the Syrian community. But they're clearly second class citizens:
…You can find Egyptians, Moroccans and Iraqis in the Syrian community. Even so, they are considered second-class citizens. “Let’s just say that the real SY’s are dominant,” my guide told me. “We set the tone. They join us, not the other way around.
”The non-Syrian Sephardim, many of whom are Israeli citizens, do a lot of the labor and neighborhood shopkeeping. “Israelis own the local grocery stores,” my guide informed me in a dismissive tone as we cruised down the enclave’s commercial strip on Kings Highway. “How much can a grocery store bring in, enough to take care of one or two families?”…
Most fascinating though is the community's near-veneration of Sam Walton. The founder of WalMart, it seems, took many Syrian businessmen under his wing and guided them to successful business in China.
Read it all here.